THE RESEARCH PAPER: AN INTRODUCTION
What a research paper should not be:
The first mistake a student often makes in approaching a research-basedassignment is to assume that the task this time involves identifyingan “issue,” that is, one of those debate topics typicalof TV talk shows: alcoholism, UFOs, abortion, the ozone layer,spotted owls, mainstreaming, date rape, and so on. Next, thisstudent, a week before the paper’s due date, looks through a recentedition of Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature andjots down references to the first few articles available in Time,Christianity Today, and Sports Illustrated. Whenwriting the paper, this student offers a “thesis” paragraphthat merely identifies the topic amid lots of filler, followedby summaries of the articles one by one with hefty and pointlessquotation, and a tack-on conclusion usually to the tune of “[issueX] is a big problem in society today and something must be done.” This student slides the paper under the instructor’s door afew hours after it is due near the end of the semester, studiesfor that infinitely more important killer Chem final, revels inwinter or summer break (woo), and totally can’t believe a D inEnglish when final grades arrive.
Facts do not “speak for themselves.” The researchpaper is not a “report,” nor is it an argumentativepaper crammed with factoids. Like all writing, it is a way ofcommunicating an idea, not just facts, from one person to another. A research paper is a special mode of this communication, a modethat requires that the writer take an authoritative stance andpresent both the factual information and an interpretation ofthose facts. Too often, “reporting” the informationmakes the paper boring, disabling that paper as a communicativetool. However, certain strategies for presenting informationcan help your writing avoid sounding like someone has haphazardlylisted lots of facts and references.
How to start a research paper:
Start a research paper as you would start any other writing project. Discover what you are interested in writing about, within theguidelines of the assignment. Your writing is not going to bevery good if you have no interest in the subject. When exploringyour ideas, bombard the subject with questions of all sorts, narrowingdown a possible thesis all the time. Jot down notes and thoughts,even words and phrases that come to mind regarding the subject. Consider what should be covered in a paper on the subject, whatneeds to be explained. After all this is done, and this isa significant part of the work on the project, begin to look forhelpful information.
Realize that your paper should ultimately add a new ideato the wealth of printed material produced by our forebears. (If the paper were just a rehashing of other people’s ideas, we’dread their writings instead.)
The purpose of supporting information:
We don’t use facts to create a paper, we use them to supportit. Supporting information is used to provide a writer with anauthority that he or she may not have otherwise. Part of yourjob is to convince the reader that you know what you are talkingabout. Quoting other people’s work on the subject shows the readerthat your thoughts have validity and therefore your writing hasvalidity. Think of the process this way: a conversation is goingon about a particular subject (possibly within the framework ifnot directly on the topic itself). You listen in to gather whatit is you need to understand about the state of that conversation,and seek to join in. It would make no sense to repeat what othershave already said, nor do you just come out of left field witha blast of facts or of opinion. Instead, you want to acknowledgewhat has been said so far, but only in order to launch your ownthoughts. This is what happens in the research writing process–theconversation simply takes place in print.
Supporting information is not the most important partof the paper! The most important part of the paper is your ideaand the way that you express it. This is where so many papersthat use supporting information go astray. When the writer findshis or her thoughts expressed elsewhere, he or she often letsthem become the most important part of the paper. Don’t let thishappen to your writing.
How to gather useful sources:
Once you have a good idea of where your paper is going you canbegin to look for support. Having a focused topic allows youto weed out a lot of superfluous information. Sessions in thelibrary are valuable if you have a direction in mind, if you knowthe kinds of sources you’ll need. Pay attention to what indexescover your type of topic. Recognize the important differencebetween magazines and journals, and which would lend the mostvalidity to your discussion.
Later, if you have a point that you feel is weak and needs somebolstering then research that point. Often, when you are alreadywell into a paper, you may think of a point you want to make andfind that you need to go do a bit more research. We’re neverfinished researching; we just stop.
How to arrange all this information gathered:
This is entirely up to you. You need to find the best way tokeep yourself and your information organized. Here are somesuggestions:
- Copy the articles and pages you use. (You may be asked toturn them in with the assignment.)
- Write all the publishing information at the top of the articlesand pages (author, title, place of publication, publishing company,date, page numbers), and the library call number in case you needto get the source again.
- In the margin at the beginning of the copy, summarize thearticle briefly.
- Highlight useful quotations or information that you mightuse to support the paper.
After this, get it all together and start writing. One sure-fireway to convince readers that you have not thought throughthe subject is to summarize your sources one by one throughoutthe paper. So instead, organize the discussion of the subjectyourself first; then draw from the sources only as they relateto the components of your discussion. Again, facts do not speakfor themselves. It is the job of the paper to show how you areanalyzing the facts, finding meaning and implicationsof the information. Remember that your voice should dominatethe discussion. Therefore, do not end paragraphs with quotation;all final words (in paragraphs, and in the conclusion itself)should be yours!